Beyond the VOX pops

This article was co-authored by the Identity, Belonging and the Role of the Media in Brexit Britain research team, and first appeared on the LSE Brexit Blog.

The vox pops conducted by the national media give a simplistic impression of people’s opinions about Brexit. In our first blog post, we discuss how our early research findings probe more deeply into people’s experience of the topic and how it touches on their identities.

Recent Brexit coverage has been dominated by intra-party politics, parliamentary procedure and conjecture about Theresa May’s leadership. It has often sounded more like a sports match than a debate about the implications and features of May’s EU withdrawal plan. Updates on ‘the Brexit chaos’ in parliament are occasionally interrupted when the news media step outside of Westminster to see, hear and report on what people think.

Two ‘Brexit unicorns’ float down the river in Totnes, April 2019.
Photo: Phil Gayton via a CC BY 2.0 licence.

Yet, even outside the Westminster bubble, these snapshots of what ‘ordinary’ people or the Great British Public think do not go beyond soundbites. Reporters often talk to people out shopping on the high street, in a snooker hall and so on, and often refer to their location, problematically, as a ‘left behind’ place. We hear: “We voted leave and so parliament should just get on with it”; “I used to be interested in politics, but not any more — I just turn it off when it comes onto the TV”. If we gave people more time to talk, what would they say about Brexit?

These vox pops are in stark contrast to the daily conversations that we are holding with people across England about Brexit and the Brexit process. We find that this Brexit moment provides a pathway to explore what we have come to think of as people’s Brexit narratives. These do include discussion on what is going on with the political process, but they are also opening up a space to explore something much more personal.

Our discussions are offering us insights into people’s place in and experience of the world. While people do discuss the rights and wrongs of the political moment, they also want to discuss with us how they are experiencing it, and situate their reactions to and experiences of Brexit in the wider context of their life-worlds. They draw on their biographies (what they are doing, plan to do and have done with their lives), including their place-based biographies (where they have lived and what it is like to live in their current city, town or village in England today).

Some people describe the politics of Brexit as having to do with their sense of social justice, fairness and equality. We are discussing what it means to be included and excluded in the world on the grounds of ethnicity, class, nationality and religion. We are exploring what social diversity and multiculturalism means, and what it feels like in England today. We are being given an insight into the impact that this Brexit moment has on people’s personal relationships, such as whom they feel they can talk to and about what, the impact of their views of the Brexit vote on their relationships with family members and at work, and their exchanges with friends, acquaintances and relatives in person, on email and via Facebook.

We also see insights into deep feelings of alienation and rejection from friends, loved ones, their community and society. What emerges from many of these conversations is a shared sense of concern from people right across the spectrum of Brexit views about a growing fragility in the norms of social civility — that the public space to ‘rub along’ with different views is threatened.

Also apparent is people’s sense of how they identify as ‘English’, ‘British’, ‘Welsh’, ‘Scottish’, as from Northumberland, Leicester or Devon, as ‘European’, as migrants, as mixed nationalities, as generational identities, as ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘mixed-race’, ‘Asian’ and as global citizens. We are working to understand what these identities mean for people. Other identities that crystallise around Brexit, such as ‘Leaver’ and ‘Remainer’, are also discussed at length. Participants seek to imagine the voting rationales of people with different Brexit identities to them. Such conversations deepen our understanding of people’s own identity by listening to how they imagine and construct ‘the Other’ in the Brexit debates.

A significant part of our work juxtaposes these Brexit narratives and ethnographic conversations with media narratives, and local media in particular. Our early impression is that local media plays an important role in giving voice to local actors and local concerns, rather than echoing the national discourse. Specifically, we found that a quarter to a third of political actors mentioned in our local news corpus (May 2016 — December 2018, on the websites of the Boston Standard, Chronicle Live, Devon Live and Leicester Mercury) are local actors such as MPs, or people speaking for local businesses and charities. While the most frequently mentioned politicians are national actors such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, the rest of the list is dominated by local politicians such as Catherine McKinnell and Chi Onwurah in Newcastle, or Ben Bradshaw in Devon.

Similarly, these headlines rarely echo those in the national broadsheets and tabloids. We built a news dashboard to track trending Brexit news in real-time based on social media virality, and observed differences between national and local outlets. Viral national news concerns the day-to-day developments in Brexit negotiations across and within partisan groups, and while local coverage does comment on these, separate stories are dedicated to local issues such as the car industry in Newcastle and Leicester or Flybe in Devon, or in general local perspectives that did not make the national news.

Beyond the soundbites presented by the national news media, discussions around Brexit involve wider claims about what people value and hold dear about their lives and the world. People make sense of ‘Brexit’ in relation to their own biographies, multiple identities, social and familial networks, and values. Brexit can also act as one prism through which individuals articulate their hopes and fears for the future. We argue that these are the everyday drivers that have been consistently written out of popular debate on the politics of Brexit.